It was just last year that Carrboro's Mammoth Records--the nationally recognized record label that launched the career of the likes of Juliana Hatfield, Joe Henry and our own Squirrel Nut Zippers--closed its local offices. While Disney, which Mammoth had sold out to in 1997, decided to keep the Mammoth name alive with a new president and a New York base, the core group of Mammoth execs--many who'd put down roots in the area--were forced to relocate to New York to work for the new, Disney-run version of Mammoth or find new jobs. For former Mammoth execs Steve Balcom (vice president), Josh Wittman (head of marketing) and Lane Wurster (creative director), the answer was to start from scratch by forming their own marketing team, named--not surprisingly--The Splinter Group.
While most of the top Mammoth execs were offered the chance to move to New York, the core employees passed. "You can imagine putting your whole life into something and then having it change drastically." Balcom says. "You can go along with that change if you really believe it's the right thing to do, and I really didn't."
"I think what drove it (forming The Splinter Group) was to keep working together. We know what we're doing is good--I think that was really the prime factor," he says.
When the first rumblings from Disney's Los Angeles office were felt here early last year, the three friends decided to pool their talents. Having worked together for over 10 years (eight for Wittman), they started hatching a plan to use their industry connections to take advantage of the years they'd spent launching music to different markets (not all youth markets either--Mammoth licensed the Teletubbies near the end). Even before Mammoth had closed its doors at the Carrboro Broad Street location, the three were putting out tentative feelers in the community and looking for a space, envisioning a company that would combine the youth-culture attitude of a record label with the marketing savvy of an edgy ad agency. Hence the creation of The Splinter Group.
"Every now and then I'd get really frustrated about the music business in general," Wurster admits. "Y'know, we'd do really great work but if it [the artists or group] didn't get on the radio, that was the big X-factor as to whether the thing was hugely successful and broke nationally and our work got seen and appreciated. We started thinking, 'What if we could apply the same type of work that we're doing for other products besides music?'"
The first problem was finding a space for their new office. They priced out of Carrboro and Chapel Hill (ironically, the other nationally known Triangle label--Merge Records--is soon moving to Durham). They were looking for a "funky space": something with attitude, not just a cubicle in an office park or complex. They ended up in Durham's historic district across from Brightleaf Square--a truly funky space now refurbished with track lighting, maple floors and sparse, futuristic furnishings. The walls are hung with album covers and photos of former clients and projects. Though they're in the heart of Durham, there's a weird little courtyard out back that's home to a funky, metal table. The space is bright, open (high ceilings with exposed beams) and clean--retaining a bit of it's former feel as an art gallery. Some days, you can hear them calling out city destinations at the nearby Greyhound bus station.
While at Mammoth, the three partners had very specific roles; but these days they're taking a team approach. At this point, the three all bring in clients and work on different aspects of group's campaigns. They've yet to bestow official titles on each other ("I'm dressed the best, I guess I'm president today," quips Wittman), giving the company a misleading sense of casualness. "We can do the suit," Wittman says, laughing.
Their first big project was for the film Snatch, aimed at 18- to 24-year-olds in the snowboarding crowd at ski resorts. They've also worked with local video company Zoom Culture--a locally based national company that arms students with video cameras, editing the results for story ideas to pitch to networks--setting up an industry trade show booth in Las Vegas. Realizing that they couldn't compete with Tri-Star, MTV, Fox and other mega corporations at the national conference, they went edgy: an apocalyptic, bunker-style booth complete with Mylar ration bags for promo goodies--the whole extreme guerilla filmmaker trip. As a result of this meeting, Zoom sold a show idea to the Fox Network.
Hardly surprising is the fact that they're still working with bands, local and national. In a weird twist, former Mammoth act, 7 Mary Three, who stayed with Atlantic during the Disney signing, were dropped and resigned by the new Mammoth. The album has gotten ads on commercial radio and will be on the street June 7. They're also doing the new Snatches of Pink album.
With bands putting out their own releases, they can hire companies like The Splinter Group to basically do what a label would do for them, but without the obligation. And they'll make more per CD. "They'll be making six, seven dollars a unit instead of one dollar," says Balcom.
The ideal candidate for this kind of marketing strategy is a band whose artists have already been through the label system, and that already have a fan base and a live following. "The band has to be willing to do the work too," says Wurster. "They have to be able to meet you halfway. It can't be more important to us than it is to them."
Not all of their clients are music related. They're designing campaigns for Fleet Feet Sports in Carrboro, West End Wine Bar and even a new bio-tech company in the Triangle.
Wittman summarizes, "We love living here and more importantly, the idea of three of us doing this company is what drove it."